I feel my phone buzz in its case strapped to my forearm while I’m drilling my mare Petra on barrels. Petra flicks one ear back at me, noticing my attention slip from our mad rush around the arena.
I can imagine her thoughts. Mom, could you focus, please!
“You’re right, girl,” I yell over the loud drumming of her hooves beneath me. We round the final barrel, and begin the sprint back to the front of the arena. The built-in timer clocks our round as we plunge through its invisible beam. “Good girl!” and I knead my knuckles just under her mane where she loves it.
Twenty minutes later after hosing Petra down, I wipe off my hands and unstrap my phone from my arm. When I pull up my texts, Annaleis’s message stares at me hauntingly. Can you pick me up? :’( I turn back to Petra who’s still in cross ties in the wash pit and nodding her big horse face at me in eagerness to be turned out in the mare pasture.
I text back. You bet. See you in a half hour. I stash my phone in the back pocket of my jeans and turn to Petra unclipping her cross ties. She follows me, not even needing a lead line, as we amble out to the pasture area. She knows which gate is hers and waits patiently for me to open it. Even though I’ll have to sprint back to the cabin to make it over to Annaleis’s place by the time I promised, I linger long enough to watch Petra dance around momentarily in the dusty part of the pasture. She quickly finds her spot and plops down to roll, her favorite thing after any workout. Only after she’s rolled over several times and stands to shake off the dust and water do I blow her a kiss and start running back to the cabin.
I don’t have time to shower before picking up Annaleis, so I wipe the sweat off and throw on a fresh t-shirt.
On the drive over, for some strange reason, I start thinking about Elaine. It seems odd, out of place. I’m excited to get this request from Annaleis, even if it’s bad circumstances leading her to text me, or perhaps especially if it is. So why does Elaine’s memory butt into my mind?
Pulling up in front of the duplex a few minutes later, I see Annaleis standing on the curb with her backpack, her curly hair looking positively wild as it blows in the wind. I glance up and see the upstairs curtain flick closed. So, Jorge’s watching. I come to a stop and reach over, pulling up the old-fashioned door lock on the truck’s passenger side. Annaleis swings her backpack off and drops it in the foot well before climbing in silently. I pull away and make a right turn off their street.
“Where are we going, Leisie?” I ask softly, wanting to reach over to her, but feeling her coolness. She can be so confessional over technology, but she always needs time to warm up to people in person.
“The beach,” she whispers without looking at me. I nod, and make a left turn at the next stoplight. I’ll have to make some calls to cover or cancel my afternoon riding lessons, but I can do that later. Leisie’s one of a precious few people in my life right now who I’ll drop absolutely everything for.
As we ride together silently for the next half hour, I can’t keep my mind from spinning in circles. Could this possibly be the last straw for Leisie? Will she finally be ready to change her life? Could that mean….
I’m not sure Annaleis and I could have become just friends if I hadn’t been so devoted to Elaine when we first met. Elaine and I had lived together for almost five years. I try to banish thoughts of Elaine from my mind, though, because I want to be present here, now; at least that’s what I tell myself. One way or another, I really can’t think about Elaine right now and hold it together the way I want to for Leisie.
“He said, he doesn’t think he can put up with much more.” Leisie’s words pull me from my thoughts, and I look over at her for the first time since opening the door for her. Her eyes, so swollen when I picked her up are still red-rimmed. “He says it’s just one thing after another with me, like I chose to be bipolar, like I can decide which days to have migraines!”
I can finally reach over and take her hand, and she squeezes my palm, spreading a warm feeling through my whole body. I want to pull over and wrap my arms all the way around her and hold her to me, but she wants to go to the beach. Right now, her immediate crisis dictates the contents of our hours together. I don’t know what to say, so I just squeeze her hand back and then let go of it so I can reach up and rub her shoulders.
“He said I need to actively choose positivity, like I don’t already do everything I can to have more good days than bad!” Annaleis clips the ends off her last few words and lowers her head, her graceful form sort of hunching around her hurt.
I can practically feel the conflict going on in her head. She’s angry with Jorge, but she wants to believe he’s the right person for her. It’s so hard to gulp back my thoughts, but I know from experience, any reason I bring to this conversation pointing out Jorge’s shortcomings will only incite a litany from her of reasons she has to be with him, reasons she can’t leave. As much as I love her and want to do anything at all for her right now, I really don’t want to hear that again. So I sit silently, rubbing her shoulder and the back of her neck with my right hand as I keep us steady on the highway with my left. We cruise.
A while later, as we wend into the little beach town, I realize it’s kite festival weekend, and Annaleis squeals sounding happy for the first time. It’s a welcome change.
“We have to buy a kite!” she says, the childish excitement ringing in her voice.
“Well it looks like that’ll be easy,” I tease her, and she swats at me, sticking out her tongue and laughing. This is the side of her I love, the side I (and apparently Jorge as well) literally can’t get enough of.
She doesn’t have any money, of course, so I hand her a twenty from my wallet and pull over into a no-parking zone since all the legal parking is taken near the shop she chooses. I wait for her. It was stiflingly hot back at the ranch, but here, seaside, the wind blows incessantly, making for a slightly chilly day. I turn the AC off, shivering and peer around behind my seat to see if I can find something warmer to put on. I wince, as all I can come up with is a long sleeve rodeo shirt that probably hasn’t been washed since I last wore it in competition. I take a sniff. It smells of dusty truck, but not as bad as it could be. I open the window and shake it out, outside, before donning it, one arm at a time, and buttoning it from bottom to top, the way I always have since I was a kid and my mom showed me how to make sure my buttons were matched properly. If only I’d ever found time to ask her a few more questions.
Annaleis returns with a rolled-up bundle I can only assume is a kite, somewhat less than fully assembled. She wants me to get out, but I point out that we’re in a no-parking zone and the beach here is going to be packed.
“Let’s get lunch and then drive down to the state park,” I suggest. That beach is private. We’ll probably be the only ones on it.”
“Ah, you know me so well,” Leisie says. I turn on the ignition.
In the end, I have to pull into another illegal parking spot and send Leisie into a deli counter place. She returns with two sandwiches, and we’re soon back on the main road.
Once we reach the state park and I pay for a parking pass, we traipse the thin sandy path to the beach. Forced into single file, Leisie walks ahead of me holding the kite package and glancing back at me to giggle with excitement. I feel my heart jump looking at the smile on her face. She’s so much easier to be around when she’s happy.
The wind strengthens as we round the bend of the dunes and see the majestic ocean, huge rocks jutting out of the water in a few places, 10 and 20 yards from where the surf meets the sand. Leisie breaks into jubilant prancing steps. I jog a few paces to catch up with her. Childlike in her excitement, she rips the plastic around the button on the kite package, dumping the contents onto the sand. Sticks scatter and roll in different directions and wind catches the flapping fabric piece. I sprint after it, just barely reaching it in time before it can really pick up speed.
“Sorry,” Leisie moans, her face red again like she might break back into tears.
“It’s okay, sweetie,” I say reflexively, wanting her to cheer back up, but I wonder silently how she could have thought dumping all the pieces out would be a good idea. I also curse myself a bit, having lacked the foresight to put the kite together while we were back at the truck. It would’ve been so much easier without the wind, but it’s too late now.
Struggling with the thin supports and the sheer fabric, still flapping furiously in the strong beach breeze, I curse aloud, but curb myself, seeing Leisie’s face darken. How she can spend more than a moment around Jorge, who I know often spouts obscenities in both English and Spanish, I have no idea.
When the kite’s made, Leisie tries to launch it immediately, but she’s just throwing it in the air repeatedly, stepping back hesitantly and squeaking each time it plunges back to earth.
“You have to run with it,” I say. She tries, running the wrong way, in the same direction as the wind. “Here, just hold the spool, okay? Let out a bunch of it.” I pull several long measures of the string away from the roll. “If this runs out, let out more.” I hold the kite firmly as I pace away from Leisie. When I reach the end of the unspooled string, I feel a catch for a split second before she begins to let out more. Now I’m pulling as she’s letting the string spool away. We’re literally strung together by this thin tension line, and with my back to her, I don’t muffle the dry little laugh that escapes me thinking about it.
When I’ve put about a dozen yards between us, I pull a handkerchief out of my pocket and wrap it around the string. My skin remembers too many burns from cotton lead ropes jerked through my hands by fidgety horses to forget this precaution. I start to run back toward her, against the wind, The kite jerks up, flagging back and forth behind me, wildly fighting the hold I have on a short length of string. Inch by inch, I let it slip through the handkerchief as I jog a few steps and stop and then jog a few more. The kite soars.
When I reach Leisie, her eyes shining up at the rising kite, I let the rest of the string through the handkerchief until I reach the last few inches. “You ready to take over?” I ask her. “That wind’s really strong.” She nods eagerly, never moving her gaze from the fluttering purple diamond. I let go and step back. Leisie’s pulled a few paces forward before she sets her weight against the kite, her arms moving back and forth with the gusting wind. I plop down in the sand, my eyes never leaving Leisie, hers still glued to the kite.
I remember about needing to make my phone calls, and pull my cell from my back pocket. After a few rings, I hear Nora pick up on the other end. I explain that I’m unexpectedly out of town and will be back late tonight.
“Yeah, she’s practically family,” I say to Nora, looking up at Annaleis who’s strayed even further from where I’m sitting, and probably can’t hear me given the strong wind that’s made the whole call a bit harder to hear.
“No problem.” Nora’s voice comes to me, small and staticky between the gusts of wind. She closes the conversation with something that sounds vaguely like “drive safe,” and we hang up.
As I stuff the phone back into my back pocket, I look up again at Annaleis whose long thick curls flying in the wind only accentuates her petite figure. Absolutely stunning! Almost unconsciously, I begin tracing a heart in the sand next to me. Looking down at what my fingers have done, I laugh. Feeling like a middle schooler, I write my initials inside the heart and begin to trace Analeis’s under mine.
She’s pretty. I’ll give you that. Elaine’s voice unbidden and unwelcome interrupts my relaxing mind. I doubt she actually swings our way, though, it continues. She’s been with that man for how long, the whole time you’ve known her, right?
Please be quiet, I think. And if you wanted a say in my life, you should’ve stuck around.
You’re the one who proved to me that I had no say, the voice continues.
I feel crazy. The real Elaine’s been gone for seven months. Why can’t I purge her voice from inside my mind? I shake my head and try to concentrate on watching Annaleis. What would it be like to date her? I let my eyes wander up to the kite, so far up in the sky now, with Leisie the only thing anchoring it and keeping it from flying away.
It would be like that, I think before I can stop myself. Only she’d be the kite, and I’d be the anchored string. I frown. That’s definitely not the image I’d hoped to conjure of the two of us together, but I can’t shake its honesty from my mind, and have to consciously stop myself from shaking my head again….